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Reflections | Mi Abuelita

13 Oct

A few weeks ago, my step-grandmother died. We were never close, and the loss I feel is for my aunt, whom she raised.  My Swedish grandmother died when my aunt was still a child, and my grandfather moved to Venezuela, where he met Carmen, who would become an American man’s wife, a step-mother, and years later, my step-grandmother.

I knew her as a small, fair woman with silver hair, but my mother has assured me how startlingly beautiful she was when she stepped off the plane in the United States, where she would marry my grandfather and raise two daughters who, by blood, were not her own–two American daughters who would grow up speaking Spanish, who called her Mother, and who would attend Mass every Sunday, under the guidance of their new Catholic madre.

It was the fervency with which my aunt attended Mass that caused my parents to eventually convert to Catholicism from Methodist, Episcopalian, or some form of Protestantism, practiced more in name than in deed.

My sister and I called my step-grandmother Grandmother Johnston, though it pleased her most when we called her Abuelita. We would visit her in the house she shared with her sister, Tia Laura–a house full of crystal and lace curtains, where we were not allowed to sit on beds and were told by our parents not to touch anything as not to break it.

There was a spare room, however, with a box of toys–nowhere close to as many toys as I had at home, but they weren’t my toys, so therefore, they were the best toys. This box of toys, the two schnauzers she and Tia Laura kept, and, on occasion, a step-cousin Elena, were enough to keep a young child happy for hours as my parents visited in her formal living room, drinking coffee or tea from china cups.

We would visit her and Tia Laura for an afternoon or so during Summer vacations, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and at each visit, Grandmother Johnston would always declare my father too fat or too thin but never just right. And as we bid goodbye in her formal entryway, always she would say with her beautiful Castilian accent, “You will not come see me, again. I know you will not. You will see me at my funeral.”

It’s a strange thing to have a step-grandmother from Venezuela who didn’t raise my father, who calls her Carmen, but who did raise my aunt, who calls her Mother. When I think of grandmother, it is the image of my maternal Nana that comes to mind–the woman who rocked me to sleep as a child, with whom I vacationed for months at a time, and whose house I will always call home.

I never met my Swedish grandmother, but I need only to look in the mirror to see her in my features.

When it comes to my step-grandmother, however, it has always been difficult to comprehend how we might be related to each other since we are not–neither by blood nor bond.

I pondered this as I walked out on my balcony earlier today, turning the doorknob on which hangs the rosary I made when I was four.

And there I stopped, realizing my relationship to Grandmother Johnston and what it is she has passed on to me: Catholic school; rites of passage; midnight Mass; books of saints; a crucifix and palms above the doorway of every family room; signs of the cross each time I’m afraid, habitual Hail Mary’s when I’m anxious, and an occasional a Dios mi.

Cultural and religious identity, brought from Venezuela to Texas, translated from Spanish to English, and passed on from my step-grandmother to my aunt, to my father and mother, and finally, to me.

I have never doubted that I am my Nana’s grandchild or my Swedish grandmother’s Svenska flika, but now I know how I am also my Abuelita’s nieta.

Vaya con Dios, Abuelita.

Neither you nor I may have realized it while you were living, but I realize now that I am, indeed, your granddaughter.

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